American Night (Public)
“Now all I need is a gun and a lah-soo...”
Pixie, the most shy and retiring of the four Gugh cats, is also the most capable killer. You wouldn’t expect it. She always wears a look of concern and has a small notch missing from her right ear. All of the other cats pick on her. She appears to occupy the lowest slot in the Gugh-cat hierarchy. Are the other cats jealous of her abilities?
The other day while I was doing laundry I heard her on the patio. Well, I didn’t know it was her initially. I just thought one of the cats was in heat. Over the sound of the washer came a low, sweet, murmuring meow. I spotted her and said “Hey Pix, what’s up? Spring getting you going?” She crawled under the windbreak screen by the edge of the patio. I looked through and spotted her on the other side with a limp mouse between her teeth. She gave it a shake, tossed it to the ground, and meowed again, long, sweet, and low. I remembered something Patricia had said about Pix calling out to the other cats when she had caught some game. I think this was the, “Come see what I’ve killed,” meow.
The cats usually line up in the conservatory by meal time… only to scatter when I come towards them laden with food. Lately, though, they’re nowhere in sight. I put down the food and, after an hour or so, consolidated it onto a single plate. There it sat long into the evening. I imagine that spring is bringing lots of small things into the world. Who wants to eat processed chicken and rabbit in jelly (from a can with two dopey looking cats on it) when you can choose from an island-wide offering of fresh baby birds and bunnies by the nest and burrow full?
The granite walls and gable end of the gig shed are now complete. It was a milestone we reached without fanfare, save for a few long moments of appreciation for the good work we’d done. The interior of the shed now measures 31' long, by 8' wide. The walls are 6' tall and two feet thick. The peak of the gable end rises another four feet or so above wall height. It’s really fantastic. Hardly a stone, except for a few capping the walls, has a right angle on it. Yet they all fit together in this amazing, structural puzzle, forming a perfectly squared-up shed. It’s monumental in its simplicity. It is sculpture in its own right, a love letter to stone and craftsmanship. When the roof goes on though, it will lose this beautiful, minimalist aesthetic. Alas, a shed it needs to be. Roofing should commence in a couple of weeks.
It’s funny to think about thirty-year mortgages when we’ve built the shell of a rudimentary house in two months or so.
Patricia has kindly offered to let me stay on Gugh with her after I get kicked out of Pengold in mid-April so Jon and Hans can start renting it to holiday makers again. That’s a mere couple of weeks from now. I can’t believe how the time has flown by and how my initial amazement, wonder, and awe have given way to day-to-day concerns. I haven’t walked the land at night or eaten from it myself in ages. I have to say that’s one thing Phillip was good at. It rubbed off on me. Maybe tonight I’ll go pick some sea spinach and wild garlic. The latter has been popping up everywhere lately and wafting on the breeze.
So, yes, Patricia has offered me a place to stay which I appreciate. I’ll miss Pengold though and my little office with its taxidermy birds, vases, and ceramics only a grandmother could love. It’s a nice little house... Sorry for the pause, not that you noticed, but I was just fantasizing about living there, turning the big wooden-floored bedroom upstairs into a living room, having a Land Rover, etc.
I have a slight hesitation about staying on Gugh. I’m not sure why. Is it that there’s no real workshop here, that I’ll be too far away from the action, that there’s no good place to write? (I’m sitting in the kitchen right now with the laptop, appropriately enough, on my lap.) I’ll have to give it some more thought.
I went to a special evening at the pub last weekend called, “American Night.” Every year they choose a different theme and cuisine. This year Bryce did the cooking and, though it was speculated, the choice of the theme had nothing to do with me.
So there we all were, me and a good portion of a small English community, eating clam chowder, cornbread, hamburgers and fries. It was all delicious. Actually, I never knew cornbread could taste so good. Growing up in a German household the closest I ever got to the stuff was tasting the mid-seventies, school-cafeteria version. Until now, I wasn’t a fan.
It was nice to see a new crowd down at the pub. In the winter it’s usually always the same few folks. Tonight though, all of the wives and non-regulars were out in force, talking, gossiping, etc. As the musical chairs game of finding a seat unfolded, I found myself next to Linda Minor (the school teacher) and her husband Jeremy (possessor of a heavy, Yorkshire accent), Julian and Pam, who’s long hyphenated surname I forget, and Alfred and Audrey, a retired couple whose surname I never knew and in fact only met for the first time this evening.
Jeremy and Julian are both regulars at the pub. They’re both in their late forties or early fifties. Jeremy’s from Yorkshire and his accent is so heavy you could use it as a boat anchor. I have to ask him to speak English on occasion so that I can actually understand him. It’s all thick, guttural vowels. The correspondingly puny consonants just can’t compete and get shoved, mercilessly, off of the ends of words. It’s one thing to hear a fifty-year-old man speaking like that but to hear Jemma, a twenty-something cutie that recently moved to Scilly from Yorkshire, speaking the same way you think, “Hang on a minute now...”
Jon was telling me that people from Yorkshire are supposedly really helpful for letting you know your shortcomings, which might be a Bill Bryson observation. Jemma’s super sweet, but Jeremy, though he means no insult, fits the description. And he has a one-eyed dog. I’m not sure what it all means.
So we all chatted about America for a bit and they carried on with a few “Ooh, look, so-and-so is not even talking to so-and-so,” and references to Star Trek spin-offs I’ve never seen, let alone heard of. After a while I turned to Alfred and Audrey.
A few months ago Hans was showing Ellen a story in a 1957 copy of Housewife Magazine about St. Agnes. Alfred featured prominently as he had been the backbone of one of the local flower farms. One of the pages showed a technicolor photo of him wearing a full beard, sou’wester rain hat, and driving a crazy looking tractor with one huge front wheel. Now he was sitting next to me, across from his lovely wife, a clean-shaven older gentleman with huge hands and a sparkle in his eyes.
I wanted to say, “I read about you in this old article,” but that seemed a little goofy at the time so I didn’t. When I asked him how he came to Scilly, he recounted the same story he told the young journalist from Housewife over forty years ago. “I was an electrician in Darbyshire and came to Scilly one summer for vacation. I liked the look of Audrey, so I came back next summer and brought my tools. I’ve been here ever since.”
When I asked him how he went from being an electrician to flower farming he said, “Well, I came down and asked what work there was to be done and this woman who was running one of the farms asked me if I’d like to pick flowers, so I just got to work. Those were the days before you’d ask what they were paying. If there was work you took it.”
He didn’t see a lot of future for the flower farmers today. As I said, flowers from Israel and Holland are driving the price down. In fact, he said the real price of flowers has been falling since he was in the business. He was happy they got out when they did. I could feel the mood getting somber and switched the subject.
It was nice to see everyone out. It struck me again how cohesive and long standing this community is. Photos from the island’s history line the dining room of the pub. One of my favorites is a beautiful shot made by a pioneer of early photography named Francis James Mortimer who grew up in Portsmouth, near the Isle of Wight, and went on to make quite a name for himself in London. The picture is taken from one of the old rowing gigs and catches three men in mid-stroke ferrying a relief lighthouse keeper out to Bishop Rock, which stands on the horizon amid the waves. They’re all pulling hard against the choppy sea and it shows. Of the three men, one of them is James Ross’s young grandfather (cheery, cap, no beard). The other is his great-grandfather (serene, earnest but pleasant expression, sailor’s hat and full sailor’s beard). James Ross was seated at the table behind me eating his hamburger. The resemblance between him and his great grandfather is haunting. He has the same dark hair, same square jaw, and the same beard. Every time I talk to him, I feel like I’m speaking to someone from another time. Unless of course he’s telling me that the CD-ROM on his computer has given up or that he’s scanned a few more images for the website he’s building for their flower farm. He’s a great guy. I really admire that whole family.
Another shot shows the St. Agnes lifeboat on the ramp at Periglis Cove in its first few days of service in the early 1900s. The photo shows the massive boat (which would have been powered by several oarsman) and members of the crew staring expressionlessly into the camera (as people liked to do back then).
Again I wonder how rare this all is. This continuity, this awareness of history.
I was helping Jon out in the old lifeboat shed the other day, which I think I mentioned is now filled with the massive shell of a boat that his brother Oliver had been rebuilding. It must be 40’ long and 10’ across the beam. He had gotten as far as building up the gunwales that had rotted away, but now marriage, other commitments, and not living on Scilly had put practical limitations on any serious work. So it was decided that the boat should be removed to make room for other projects.
Jon’s plan for the old hull is to turn her into the roof of a shed. Hans, who has profound difficulty throwing things away, voiced a protest but let his words fade. By “profound difficulty throwing things away” I mean... the fridge overflowing with old butter wrappers and the workshop up at the house is overflowing with just about everything. Moving the boat is just part of Jon’s plan for a spring cleaning of the boat shed that’s literally lasting the whole spring.
I loved working there. The boat shed is amazing. It was built of stone and cement with a very high ceiling and a translucent roof. The light in there is fantastic. Boating junk climbs every wall: old masts, new masts, sails, a string of huge fluorescent red fenders (they hang over the sides of the hull to keep boats from scraping against quays), outboard motors, ladders, furniture, and old tea chests with the slogan “It pays to buy good tea,” crudely stenciled on the sides. (It pays to hire a good ad agency too, but who’s complaining?) And there, shoe-horned into that nautical treasure trove, sits this huge, old hull.
It looks like it was built well over a hundred years ago—but what do I know? It’s old anyway—to be a sturdy barge, though it now looks quite frail and naked without its gunwales, deck, or transom. It’s just all tarred black wood and exposed ribs, lying wide and flat. Fastened to its prow it still carries a rusty length of tired, thin, hand-forged chain, like an old beast. Jon thinks it’s going to take two tractors and a few well-placed handfuls of grease to get her out. That’ll be worth watching.
Now I know why I don't want to go over to Gugh. I’ll miss hanging out with Jon and working on stuff. He pops in all the time and says things like, “Hey Schulzie, have you got half an hour to help me (blah, blah) rusty tractor” or “(blah, blah) an old boat rig.” Sometimes it’s just, “Hey, we’re going fishing—you interested?” And then we go work or fish, have a laugh, and drink tea. I’d miss being in that loop. I’d also miss having Ellen and Bryce right across the road. I like this part of town, er... hamlet.
Oh, one more thing. For “American Night” Ellen dressed in jeans, a denim cowboy shirt, cowboy hat, and boots. To top it off she feathered her hair into an absolutely authentic seventies do, which was fun because to me Ellen is as English as they come. Then she turned to me and said, “All I need now is a gun and a lah-soo.”
“A lah-soo, you know, out of rope, for catching horses.”
It’s 11:30 pm now. I’ve just come back from the pub and am sitting on the beach back on Gugh. I’ve got the brightness on the laptop set at its lowest setting but the screen is still blinding me, throwing light up the beach twenty yards on either side of my shadow. From above, I must look like a small comet.
It’s pleasant and warm out tonight. I’m sure it’s not the beer. Some cloud cover, a low tide, and stillness are on offer, with a hint of breeze. Gently, ever so gently it caresses my face.
How can I describe to you this broad quiet, the sounds of the wavelets carelessly lapping the sand, the completeness of the dark? Once I close my blazing PowerBook, there’s not a single light to be seen. The land is black and solid. The sea reflects the sky like a black mirror. Again I experience the paradox of everything being revealed in the dark. The earth shows herself, beautifully, like a lover, her curves lit by the background glow of dim clouds, leftover rays of light, and barely visible stars.